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Cubs Maple Street Press Annual: Robinson Chirinos

Catcher Robinson Chirinos of the Chicago Cubs warms up before a spring training game against the San Diego Padres at Peoria Stadium in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Catcher Robinson Chirinos of the Chicago Cubs warms up before a spring training game against the San Diego Padres at Peoria Stadium in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

You've asked for them, you've got them.

We're all excited about the 2011 Maple Street Press Annual, for which Al has been kind enough to ask me to work on for the past four seasons. Every year he asks me to write on two minor leaguers, one pitcher and one hitter, as well as make a Top 20 Cubs Prospect List. Generally these take up much of my time between the end of the World Series to early December.

When I decide who to write on, it's a tough balancing act. You want to write about players who have a decent chance of making contributions to the Cubs, but you also want to write about prospects with good stories to tell. Otherwise, all you're doing is repeating scouting reports. It's not always easy balancing the two competing goals. After the 2009 season, I had to convince Al that Casey Coleman was worthy of getting a profile and that he could contribute to the Cubs in 2010. You can trust me when I say no one outside of the Cubs organization or the Coleman family was happier than I was to see Coleman's excellent September last year.

Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don't. This season, Al suggested that the pitcher I write on be Chris Archer, and while it was just a suggestion, he didn't need to twist my arm. Archer's rise from the third piece in the Mark DeRosa trade to top prospect status was the biggest story in the Cubs system last year. There was no question that he could contribute to the team, the only question was whether he was the number 1, 2 or 3 prospect in the system. He was the system's Minor League Pitcher of the Year and seemed destined to be in the Cubs rotation in either 2011 or 2012 at the latest.

Picking a minor league hitter was harder. I had already written about Brett Jackson and Brandon Guyer in previous annuals, so they were out. Al had no suggestions there and when I threw out "Maybe Robinson Chirinos," he said that would be fine. In all honesty, it was really just a placeholder name I threw out there until I could think of someone better. Chirinos is old for a prospect and as a catcher, was blocked by Geovany Soto. But for the past two seasons, the man has done nothing but hit and play solid defense behind the plate. And the more I researched Chirinos, the more I fell in love with his story. Soon, rather than writing about Chirinos by default, I became excited that I chose to write on him.

I knew that Chirinos was trade bait because he was blocked by Soto, but I figured he wouldn't get dealt before the season opened. Archer, on the other hand, I thought was golden. I never dreamed he'd be dealt after the great season he had in 2010.

You all know what happened. Matt Garza is now a Cub and Chirinos and Archer are property of the Rays. It's actually a great deal for Chirinos, who will get a chance to win a catching job in Spring Training and play for a team in Florida, where he and his family now live. But it was a crummy deal for me.

So to give you a taste of what to expect in this season's upcoming Maple Street Press Annual, today and tomorrow we're going to give you those axed articles. I've still got a Top 20 Prospects list coming out (that's actually Top 30 because I sneaked in ten "honorable mentions") and one replacement article on Matt Cerda, which is good too. And, of course, there will be lots more stuff that will tell you everything you ever possibly wanted to know about the Cubs for 2011. I didn't finish reading last year's annual until August.

If you like this, be sure to order your copy of this year's annual, which you can order now at this link.

After the jump is today's article on Robinson Chirinos. Chris Archer's profile will run tomorrow.

Robinson Chirinos
by Josh Timmers

They are the unsung heroes of professional baseball - the hundreds of minor leaguers who aren't considered prospects. Called "organizational filler," they ride the buses for meager pay because they love the game and hope against hope that the scouts in the stands are wrong about them. Mostly, they have jobs, such as they are, because there aren't enough real prospects to fill out every minor league roster. Major league organizations don't necessarily value them for their playing ability as much as for their ability to be good teammates to the real prospects. These are the players that Crash Davis represented in the movie Bull Durham. Often they jump from organization to organization, willing to play for whomever needs a relief arm or a reserve outfielder in the Sally League, just to have just one more chance to prove the scouts wrong - one more chance to put off the end of a dream.

From time to time, one of these players gets a call to the majors. A perfect example is Bobby Scales, who has played briefly for the Cubs the last two seasons after 11 years in the minors. Mostly, this type of player just comes up for a cup of coffee because he was the only player available at the time, and he'll wake up 15 days or so later, back riding the buses in the minors. Sometimes he will hang on until he gets a job as a scout or a coach, and eventually realize his dream in that capacity -- as Cubs manager Mike Quade did, after toiling for three decades in the minors as a player, coach and manager until he reached the pinnacle. But almost never do such players actually prove the scouts wrong and become legitimate major leaguers. Cubs catcher Robinson Chirinos has a very good chance to be one of the select few.

Robinson Chirinos was born in Venezuela and like many boys in that South American country, he dreamed of being a major league baseball player. As an infielder who idolized Roberto Alomar, Chirinos caught the eye of a Cubs scout and shortly after his 16th birthday he signed a professional contract to play baseball in the USA. That was 11 years ago.

Chirinos reported to Arizona to play Rookie ball the next year, full of the same optimism and insecurities that every ballplayer playing his first professional season has. One of the other infielders on that team was Ronny Cedeño. The catchers were Geovany Soto and Carlos Marmol (yes, Marmol began his pro career behind the plate) and one of the pitchers was current Marlins hurler Ricky Nolasco. They were all older and played better than Chirinos, who only managed to hit .234. But Chirinos was a middle infielder who was signed more for his glove than his bat, so no one wrote him off just yet.

The next season he was promoted to Boise, where he only hit .247, although he did hit eight home runs in only 62 games, which showed that he at least had some pop in his bat. The Cubs' Low A farm club was still in Lansing in 2003, and Chirinos spent the next two seasons there. He was still young, just 20, but he had been a professional for four seasons and had yet to post a batting average above .250. While he was still slowly moving up the farm system, he was also getting tagged with the dreaded "organizational player" label.

Entering his fifth season in the Cubs organization, Chirinos ended up in Daytona Beach, Florida for the first time in 2005. It would be a town he would become very familiar with, as he would play four of the next five seasons for the Daytona Cubs. Although he had his best year as a hitter in 2005 for Daytona, he was demoted to Peoria in 2006, likely because he needed to make way for better players that the Cubs wanted to promote. That's the way it works for an organizational player: where you play is often decided by where you will best help other players make the majors.

Life beyond baseball went on for Robinson Chirinos. He got married and he and his wife Haidy would make Daytona Beach their home during the season. In 2007, they welcomed the birth of their son David there. All the while, Chirinos continued to ride the buses in Florida and hope that he might get a chance to play second base for the Cubs one day soon.

During this time, Chirinos got a reputation as a smart player and a good teammate, exactly the type of player that the organization wanted the other minor leaguers from Latin America to look up to. No one connected to the Cubs will admit this, but the scuttlebutt around this time was that the Cubs were just keeping him around so he could become a scout or a coach in the organization after he got playing out of his system. While that might not have been true, it is clear that no one thought he was much of a prospect by this time. He was a good glove at second base, but he was still struggling to hit above .250 in the low minors.

Now in his seventh season in the Cubs system, Chirinos finally got a call up to Double A Tennessee during the second half of the 2007 season, but he hit miserably and found himself back in Daytona for the beginning of the 2008 season. He was 24 and heading backwards, not forwards. Most organizations would have cut ties with a player like Chirinos at this point, but the Cubs still saw something in him that they liked, and in 2008, Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita came to him with a proposal. Chirinos was a smart player with a good arm. Would he like to try catching?

"He [Fleita] thought it was more a possibility that I could play in the big leagues [as a catcher]," Chirinos told the Knoxville News. "He told me to think about it and let me know. The next day I told him I was going to do it."

Fleita, for his part, told Baseball America, "We saw real good feet and real good hands. He has a great arm and a great release. He has a good-looking durable body. All the skills were there."

Chirinos left for Arizona during the 2008 season to learn how to catch at the Cubs spring training complex in Mesa. He returned to Daytona that season and caught 18 games there, his first as a pro, and also caught in winter ball in his native Venezuela that offseason. Then he worked hard in spring training in 2009 with Jody Davis and Daytona manager Buddy Bailey, both former catchers. His new role model on the diamond was no longer Robbie Alomar. Now it was a former Cub catcher, as he told Tennessee Smokies radio. "When I started making the adjustment, it was Henry Blanco of the Cubs. He was such a great catcher and I was just trying to be as good as him."

Chirinos was a quick study. By June of 2009, Jody Davis praised Chirinos' skill behind the plate in an interview with Sean Kernan of Daytona Beach News-Journal. "He's blocking the ball well and he's throwing it pretty good. I think he's always had some kind of feel for calling a game. For a converted guy, he's come along quickly."

Chirinos agrees. By August of 2009, he explained to Kernan, "I told [my teammates] that I was born to catch. I didn't know that until last year. Now, every time I'm behind the plate, I feel like that's where I want to be and that's going to get me to the big leagues." By the end of that year, Baseball America listed Chirinos as the best defensive catcher in the Cubs system in their year-end wrap.

But it wasn't just Chirinos' defense that was surprising. Most young catchers struggle to hit while learning to field the position at the same time. In his case, it was just the opposite. Chirinos' bat took off once he moved behind the plate. Chirinos believes that his move to catching and his improved hitting are connected. "I have more of an idea of what the pitcher is doing when I'm hitting," he explained to Tennessee Smokies' broadcaster Mick Gillispie.

In 2009, Chirinos played 69 games for the D-Cubs and he hit an even .300 with a solid .400 OBP. But it was a two-game stretch on June 1-2 that really got his bat noticed. On June 1, Chirinos hit two grand slams in the same game, an 11-3 shellacking of the Sarasota Reds. It was only the second time that had ever happened in the Florida State League and the first time in 50 years. The next day, he hit two more home runs of the non-grand slam variety. Buddy Bailey quipped in the Daytona paper, "We might have to change our name to the Daytona Chirinos if he keeps this up." Chirinos would finish the season in Daytona with 11 home runs and got a brief 12-game promotion to Tennessee. He was an All-Star for the first time in his career in 2009, making both the FSL All-Star Game and the FSL Post-season All-Star Team.

His hitting continued in 2010 in Double A Tennessee, where Chirinos hit an eye-popping .318 with a .412 OBP and 15 home runs in only 77 games for the Smokies. That earned him late-season promotion to Triple A Iowa, where he hit .364 with three home runs in only 15 games. Chirinos was named to the Southern League Post-Season All-Star team.

There is another dreaded term in minor league scouting, however: "old for his level," which is used to describe an older, more experienced player doing well against much younger players, implying that his numbers should therefore be discounted. To be sure, that's a factor in some of Chirinos' production. By 2010, Chirinos was playing against much greener competition in his 10th season in the minor leagues. Were he 21 and putting up those kinds of numbers, he'd be one of the top prospects in all of baseball. But despite all of Chirinos' professional experience, he will still only be 27 years old, and there are precedents for such late bloomers developing into successful big leaguers. To cite an example of someone you're quite familiar with, Cubs announcer Bob Brenly didn't make the majors until he was 27, and he had a long major league career as a catcher, even making one All-Star game. So it is not wise to simply write off a player of Chirinos' considerable skills just because he's considered "old for his level."

After the 2010 season, the Cubs added Chirinos to their 40-man roster. If they hadn't, they certainly would have lost him to another team through the Rule 5 Draft. That's ironic and a testament to how far he has come as a player, since he had been eligible to be taken by another team in each of the previous five seasons, but no other team wanted him. The addition to the 40-man roster also means that Chirinos will be at spring training in Mesa in 2011.

Chirinos isn't going to take away the job of his former Rookie ball teammate Geovany Soto. But he could be a very valuable backup to Soto, who hasn't played in more than 105 games since his rookie season due to injuries. Chirinos has also been mentioned in trade rumors this offseason, and while he might not ever be the starting catcher for the Cubs, there may be other teams willing to make him their primary backstop.

While it's safe to say that being an infielder and "organizational filler" is behind Chirinos these days, he'd also like everyone to know that something else is behind him too. In 2005, Chirinos was suspended for 15 days, along with six other Cub minor leaguers, for testing positive for a banned substance. MLB has never said what that substance was, but Chirinos has said it was something in a protein shake that he had purchased in Venezuela. "That was the first year they were doing the drug tests and a lot of things you could get from places like GNC were banned . . . [But] now I only use supplements that are approved by Major League Baseball," he told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Since that time, Chirinos has been tested for five years under the more stringent drug testing procedures that minor league players undergo. He hasn't tested positive and he swears he never will again.

Chirinos has had to overcome a lot of stigmas in his long professional career. He came out of nowhere to become a legitimate prospect while changing positions, which usually only occurs when a position player moves to the mound, something both Carlos Marmol and Randy Wells accomplished. Chirinos also learned a completely new position, while somehow becoming a much better hitter in the process. Now Cubs fans are hoping he can overcome one more hurdle. Usually when a minor leaguer as old as Chirinos makes the majors, it's a feel-good story about a dream that briefly comes true, But in this case, Cub fans might be feeling good not just because Robinson Chirinos has had his dream cup of coffee, but because the former "organizational filler" has proven that a long-held dream can sometimes turn into a long, productive major league career.